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Nieves Rico


June 1997

ABSTRACT ............................................. ................................................






1. Gender-based violence as a human rights violation .......................

2. Legislation on domestic violence ................................................


DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN ........................................


1. Research findings.....................................................................
2. Main consequences of domestic violence ....................................
3. Reporting of domestic violence ..................................................



SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN THE WORKPLACE ..................................



OTHER FORMS OF GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE ................................



PROPOSALS .................................................................................


BIBLIOGRAPHY ........................................ ................................................



While it is true that human rights violations are committed against men as well as women,
their impact clearly differs depending on the sex of the victim. Studies of the subject
indicate that all acts of aggression against women exhibit some characteristic or other
that provides a basis for their classification as gender-based violence. This means that
such violence is directly related to the unequal distribution of power and to the
asymmetrical relationships that exist between men and women in our society, which
perpetuate the devaluation of women and their subordination to men. What differentiates
this type of violence from other forms of aggression or coercion is that the risk factor in
this case is the mere fact of being a woman.
Gender-based violence can take many forms and, depending on the type of
relationship that is its context and the type of power being exerted, this crime may
therefore fall into any of the following categories: rape and incest, sexual harassment at
work or at school, sexual violence against women detainees or prisoners, acts of violence
against displaced women, trafficking in women and domestic violence.
The following study explores the last of these crimes in detail, but also discusses
the other forms, since in recent years it has led to the establishment of new institutions
and the adoption of legislative amendments that have served as a focal point for collective
action by women.
The lack of the necessary statistical data to provide an accurate picture of this
phenomenon in Latin America and the Caribbean constitutes an obstacle to a fuller
understanding of the issues associated with gender-based violence. Although clearly it
occurs much more frequently than is indicated by official records, studies on the subject
suggest that the problem is actually one of epidemic proportions. Most of the data cited in
this study have been drawn from research papers and documents prepared by
non-governmental organizations and international bodies that have studied the subject in
recent years.
The proposals presented here are based on the indivisible nature of women's rights,
on the obligation of the State to protect and uphold those rights, and on the conviction
that respect for human rights is also an essential condition for the development of our
countries and the full citizenship of all their inhabitants. A case is also made for the
necessity of analysing the subject of human rights and gender-based violence from a
perspective that holds out the possibility of cultural changes of a structural nature that
will entail respect for women's rights and will call into question the inevitability of
violence as an element in gender relations.


Human rights, defined here as a group of ethical principles having a legal dimension, arise
out of the need of each and every individual to enjoy the conditions essential for a decent
life. These rights have been structured through a long process of change over the last two
centuries. Although it is impossible to establish a linear historical sequence in the
identification of these rights, an analysis of the history of debates on the question in
international bodies shows that civil and political rights may be regarded as corresponding
to the "first generation" of human rights; social, economic and cultural rights to the
"second generation", and the right to peace, development and a healthy environment to
the "third generation", while the rights of peoples represent a "fourth generation".
In recent years, as part of this evolution, a concept of human rights has been
developing that calls into question the universal validity of androcentrism and of the model
of Western man. This has led to an awareness of the need to have regard for the specific
characteristics of individuals, whether in terms of gender, ethnic origin, age or any other
trait. The recognition of this heterogeneity does not lead to the fragmentation or
atomization of the human condition; on the contrary, it contributes to a true
universalization of individuals and human rights based on the principle of pluralism and
respect for differences and diversity.
At this time, it is imperative to analyse the question of human rights and genderbased violence against women from a perspective that offers the possibility of cultural
change. To do so, it must be borne in mind that this issue is directly related to the
unequal distribution of power in society and that radical changes are therefore needed in
this area. The type of social change which demands that women's rights be upheld should
cast women with all their different ways of thinking, feeling and acting as leading
actors in this process of change. Their historical and day-to-day experiences should be
taken into account in this substantive reformulation of human rights, since the definition
and application of these rights must not be separated from people's daily lives.
The democratization processes now under way in Latin America and the Caribbean,
after a period marked by numerous human rights violations, are shaping a broader social
base for greater awareness, repudiation and solidarity in relation to these events. The
process of democratizing gender relations is still in its early stages, however, although
there is an increasing recognition of the need to move beyond the patterns whereby
women occupy positions inferior or subordinate to men. The way aggression against
women is conceptualized also has to be changed, and women's right to live without
violence has to be recognized. In our countries, this implies an acknowledgement of the
following: 1) that respect for human rights is an indispensable requisite for the
development and full exercise of citizenship, and 2) that there are serious conflicts
conflicts that have to be resolved between individual and collective rights and between
the principle of equality and the right to be different.
Although human rights violations affect men as well as women, their impact and
character clearly change according to the sex of the victim. Moreover, most of the

violations of the rights of women and the discrimination and abuse to which women are
subjected are specifically attributable to their sex. Despite the existence of such factors as
ethnic origin, social class, sexual preference, disabilities and political and religious
affiliation which are factors in the victimization of women, generally speaking, every act
of aggression perpetrated against a woman has some characteristic or other that identifies
it as gender-based violence.1
Gender-based violence is defined as violence that reflects the existing asymmetry in
the power relations between men and women and that perpetuates the subordination and
devaluation of the female as opposed to the male. This violence exists within the
framework of the patriarchy as a symbolic system that engenders an array of day-to-day
practices which deny women their rights and reproduce the existing imbalance and
inequity between the sexes. The difference between this kind of violence and other forms
of aggression and coercion lies in the fact that in this case the risk factor or source of
vulnerability is the mere fact of being a woman.
Throughout history, various forms of violence have manifested themselves in
society as a consequence of certain sectors' or groups' domination over others. In this
context, gender-based violence is a key social mechanism for perpetuating the
subordination of women, since male hegemony power being considered the generic
patrimony of men (Amors, 1990) is based on social control over women. Therefore,
violations of women's human rights are directly or indirectly related to the gender system
and to mainstream cultural values.
The violation of women's rights and gender-based violence are not new problems;
they arise out of attitudes which, until very recently, were socially acceptable and, since
they were generally limited to the sphere of private life, were little known. Nevertheless, it
is clear that the racial mix (mestizaje) of Latin America and the Caribbean is founded upon
a paradigm that has its roots in the rape of indigenous women. Historical studies in some
countries show that physical violence or brutality committed by men against their wives
was an accepted fact in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and that violence was
accepted as a "punitive correction" in cases where women did not comply with social
mandates (Cavieres and Salinas, 1991).
What is new is a concern for women who suffer physical, sexual or psychological
aggression in the family, at work or in educational institutions. The problem is perceived
somewhat differently today, as society begins to question, at an essential level, the
consubstantiality between violence and gender relations, and as a negative attitude
towards violence, in any of its manifestations in social life, becomes increasingly
Forms of gender-based violence which, depending on the relational and power
structures in operation, regarded as criminal acts include rape, incest, sexual harassment
in the workplace and in educational institutions, sexual violence against detained or
imprisoned women, violence against displaced women and trafficking in women.
However, in the region these expressions of extreme violence have not been widely

According to the United Nations group of experts on violence against women, although
anyone can be a victim of acts of violence, gender is one of the factors that significantly increases
vulnerability. Some of the factors that back up the assertion that gender-specific violence exists are:
a) most aggressors are men, whether the victim is a man or a woman; b) violence affects men and
women in different ways, since the injury or damage suffered is normally determined by their sex;
c) aggressors are usually motivated by gender considerations, such as the need to reinforce male
power and privileges (United Nations, 1993a).

studied, and, for the most part, little or no research is being done on these issues. The
most widely recognized problem is domestic gender-based violence. This study devotes
special attention to this issue in view of the important institutional initiatives undertaken in
this area, the substantial changes that have been introduced in the relevant legislation,
and the collective actions that have been coordinated by women to address the problem.
Only a small proportion of the acts of violence that affect the lives of women in our
countries is reported, but the studies that have been done indicate that such violence is
common. In the region, systematic research on domestic violence began in the second
half of the 1980s and has provided a good deal of information and analysis. This has
provided some idea of the magnitude of the problem and has made the issue an object of
public and governmental concern, although the degree of awareness differs from one
social sector to another. However, these studies usually suffer from certain limitations:
generally speaking, they reflect biased perspectives, most are descriptive or exploratory,
and there is still a lack of coordination and a failure to observe common methodological
standards, which makes it difficult to compare their findings or extrapolate from their
Moreover, although real progress has been made in estimating the prevalence of
domestic violence, there are still no official statistics on the actual frequence of all the
various forms of gender-based violence in the region. For this reason, the data presented
in this study correspond to research and documents prepared by non-governmental
organizations and international bodies that have worked on the issue in recent years.
There have also been a great variety of actions to prevent violence and provide
attention and support to its victims, but such steps are usually taken without benefit of
coordination and with limited resources, and have differing basic orientations. Consensus
baseline analysis and methodological criteria are also lacking, so no comparable figures
have become available to serve as a basis for policy-making. Follow-up and assessments
of the projects undertaken, using accepted valid procedures, would provide more
systematized and conclusive data.
The complexity of the relationships between men and women and of their causes
and effects, the different forms of discrimination, the stereotypes that perpetuate them,
and the violation of women's human rights are not limited to the problem of violence.
Nonetheless, the various dimensions of social inequity cannot be analysed without
considering this fact as a dramatic expression of gender-based inequality and asymmetry.


Over the past few decades, gender-based violence has increasingly come to be recognized
as a serious problem at the international level, not only for women but also for the
attainment of equality, development and peace (United Nations, 1986a). The issue has
also become a priority for women's organizations in the region and a subject for feminist
thought during the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace
(1976-1985), and in recent years Governments in the region have also begun to devote
attention to the issue.2
Although in 1979 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on
the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women,3 which incorporated
women into the sphere of human rights, that instrument did no more than to touch on the
problem of violence against women. One of its defects is precisely the lack of a clear
definition of gender-based violence. Specific concern for this problem began to manifest
itself in 1980, when the World Conference of the United Nations Decade for Women:
Equality, Development and Peace, held in Copenhagen, adopted the resolution on
"Battered women and violence in the family". Likewise, paragraph 288 of the Nairobi
Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women (1985), issued by the Third
World Conference, calls for specific measures to deal with violence against women.
Since that time, the United Nations has organized meetings of groups of experts on
violence against women and has taken steps to bring the issue to the attention of the
Commission on the Status of Women, the Economic and Social Council, the Division for
the Advancement of Women, the United Nations Statistical Office and the Committee on
Crime Prevention and Control. In 1989, the Committee for the Elimination of
Discrimination against Women recommended that member States report on violence
against women and the measures adopted at the governmental level to eradicate it.
At the Expert Group Meeting on Violence against Women held in 1991, it was
determined that the existing instruments did not give due consideration to gender-based
violence and that a specific definition of this crime was lacking. In the opinion of the
group, the absence of a clear definition hindered the effective application of international
human rights regulations aimed at solving this problem (United Nations, 1991a, b, and c).
Accordingly, the expert group produced a draft declaration on the elimination of violence

In the early stages, actions taken within the framework of the women's movement by nongovernmental organizations were carried out independently of State institutions, but in 1990 the
two groups began to collaborate on projects and programmes in this area.
It is important to note that Latin America and the Caribbean is the first, and for the moment
the only, region of the world in which all the countries have ratified the Convention on the
Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women. This, however, does not mean that all
the countries in question have adapted every aspect of their legislation to the Convention, have
adopted measures to eliminate de facto discrimination, or have complied with this obligation to
report to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).


against women which was analysed in depth by the Commission on the Status of Women
at its thirty-sixth session with a view to its adoption by the General Assembly.
At the region level, pursuant to the resolution entitled "Women and violence"
adopted at the Fifth Regional Conference on the Integration of Women into the Economic
and Social Development of Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC, 1991b) and General
Assembly resolution 45/114 on domestic violence (United Nations, 1990), the documents
and policy recommendations issued by the Economic Commission for Latin America and
the Caribbean (ECLAC) have characterized the problem of gender-based violence as one of
the obstacles that must be overcome in order to improve the status of women in the
countries of the region and achieve development with social equity.
Women's groups in the region have carried out a variety of activities to promote
respect for women's human rights. This process intensified during the preparations for the
United Nations World Conference on Human rights, held in Vienna in June 1993. At that
Conference, the women's movement proposed that the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights include specific references to gender-based violence and that the Declaration be
reformulated from the gender perspective, which is not limited to the situation of women
but rather encompasses all of society.
For their part, in the San Jos Declaration on Human Rights, which was adopted at
the conclusion of the Regional Meeting for Latin America and the Caribbean of the World
Conference on Human Rights held in January 1993 in Costa Rica, the Governments of
Latin America and the Caribbean reiterated that the State should give priority to actions
that promote respect for women's rights, their participation in national life under equal
conditions, the eradication of all forms of hidden or open discrimination, and especially the
elimination of gender-based violence.
The resolutions adopted at the World Conference on Human Rights emphasize the
importance of ensuring that women are able to enjoy the highest possible level of physical
and mental health throughout their lives and, to that end, recognize their right to
accessible and adequate health care, a broad range of family planning services, equal
access to all educational levels on an equal footing, and to a life free of violence. One of
the achievements made possible by the proposals put forward by the women's movement
of Latin America and the Caribbean was the inclusion in the final declaration issued by the
Conference of a recommendation that a Special Rapporteur should be designated to report
on the status of the situation as regards violence against women in all the countries of the
world. In November 1993, the forty-eighth session of the United Nations General
Assembly established that post.
Recently, two new international instruments have been proposed which would
recognize that all forms of gender-based violence are human rights violations: declaration
48/104 of the United Nations General Assembly on the elimination of violence against
women4 and an inter-American convention on the prevention, punishment and eradication
of violence against women, which has been proposed by the Organization of American
States through its Inter-American Commission of Women (IACW).
The Declaration recognizes the urgent need to extend to women the rights and
principles concerning the equality, security, liberty, integrity and dignity of all human

Adopted on 20 December 1993. Given the nature, magnitude and seriousness of genderbased violence in our societies, this Declaration is the result of a consensus as to the need to define
such violence clearly with a view to the adoption of modifications or the addition of new provisions
in the legislation of the States that signed the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of
Discrimination against Women (United Nations, 1994).


beings. Article 1 defines violence against women as "any act of gender-based violence
that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering
to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty,
whether occurring in public or private life". Article 2 states that "violence against women
shall be understood to encompass, but not be limited to, the following: (a) Physical,
sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including battering, sexual abuse
of female children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital
mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence and
violence related to exploitation; (b) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring
within the general community, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and
intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women and
forced prostitution; (c) Physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or
condoned by the State, wherever it occurs" (United Nations, 1994).
In summary, progress has been made mainly in two areas: dissemination of
information about violence against women and violations of their human rights, and the
consideration of their interests and demands in United Nations instruments for the
protection and promotion of human rights.
This growing international recognition of the problem is due to greater awareness at
the world level of the rights of women and to the work of such organizations as the Latin
American and Caribbean Network against Sexual and Domestic Violence,5 which have
repeatedly said that gender-based violence is a priority issue for women the world over.
Thanks to these efforts, the defenseless situation of victims is gradually changing and,
today, most of the countries of the region have laws that defend women and places
where they can seek shelter, support and assistance. Governments6 and nongovernmental organizations are also organizing information and sensitization campaigns
that help to make the problem known and offer various informational and preventive
The media, too, are more open to publishing articles denouncing gender-based
violence, editorials concerning the issue and the conclusions of studies on the subject.
Gender-based violence is no longer reserved for the news sections devoted to
sensationalist police reports. Other sections of newspapers carry women's viewpoints,
although there is still no critical reflection on the responsibility of the media as regards the
reproduction and perpetuation of violence against women and the dominant gender
Professionals and students of various specializations are also showing more interest
in the problem. The academic world has been slow to study the causes, consequences
and characteristics of gender-based violence, but the fact that it is now doing so is an
important advance. In 1989, the National University of Buenos Aires established a degree
programme focusing on family violence, and post-graduate courses on gender are given in
universities in a number of countries, including Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico and
Even though public debate and dialogue on the issue have become more widespread

The Network held its first meeting in August 1992 in Olinda, Brazil, with the participation of
21 countries of the region. The Network is comprised of five subregions: the Caribbean, Central
America and Mexico, the Andean subregion, Brazil and the Southern Cone.
An example of these activities is the television campaign carried out in 1993 by the National
Women's Service of Chile (SERNAM), with spots entitled "War" and "Cries of Silence" and a radio
show called "Diary of hope", which was comprised of 30 chapters of 15 to 20 minutes each.


and are delving more deeply into the problem, Governments still lack a defined policy for
combating and preventing gender-based violence in all its forms. Despite the limitations
that still exist, over the last decade there has clearly been an increasing awareness and
social consciousness about problems affecting women. This is reflected in the existence
of a greater concern about gender-based violence, especially at the international level, and
the activities that have been carried out in the countries.
1. Gender-based violence as a human rights violation
Women enjoy the same rights and freedoms as men, and autonomy, under the terms of
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; Convention
against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and the
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. In addition
to respect for the rights enshrined in these instruments, voices have been raised in Latin
America and the Caribbean calling for the recognition of the specific contextualized rights
of women. For example, they demand the right to be agents and beneficiaries of
development, in view of the intensification of social inequality and the impact of the crisis,
the social cost of structural adjustment policies and the limitations of social policies in
compensating for the effects of economic changes. They also demand the right to
participate socially and politically within the framework of an equitable form of
development that gives decision-making power to everyone. Reproductive rights are also
called for, with such rights being understood to include a woman's right to receive
suitable care during pregnancy, childbirth and puerperium, to have access to duly
controlled contraceptives, to decide when she wants to have children and how many
children to have, and especially to exercise control over her own body.7
Although since the 1970s women have participated widely and visibly in the
movement to defend human rights, they have not always been able to place their genderrelated demands at the centre of that struggle. It was not until the late 1980s that
women became fully aware of their status as persons having a legal identity and began to
act accordingly, questioning the essentialist view of social hierarchies and the "normality"
of their subordination. In this context, their demands for human rights are also a
consequence of their demands for new ways to exercise their citizenship and their desire
to do so on an equal footing in accordance with the principle that the most basic right is
the "right to have rights" (Lefort, 1987). Linking the issue of gender-based violence with
human rights offers new possibilities for analysis and for the struggle to end discrimination
against women.
Still influential, however, is the fact that the human rights paradigm was structured
on the presupposition that public affairs form the context for individual civil and political
rights, which leaves out violations that occur within the household. Thus, crimes against

A research project on women and human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean carried
out by the Ministry of Justice of Costa Rica concluded that in the region the following rights of
women are violated: the right to integrity, health and life to liberty, dignity and equality; to work, to
equitable, decent, safe and hygienic working conditions and to equal pay for equal work; to rest
and free time; to take decisions with regard to reproduction and to have access to suitable and
available health care; and to participate in political life and occupy public office (Costa Rica,
Ministerio de Justicia y Gracia, 1993).


women are considered as such to the extent that they can be associated with situations
addressed in legal codes and treaties. For this reason, women began to fight for a
redefinition and extension of internationally recognized rights, so that gender relations
might be considered as a context in which inequality is manifested. They have also
spoken of the need for a new interpretation of public and private spheres and hence, of
the sphere of human rights, since this dichotomy has limited the citizenship of women.
Gender-based violence in the household is a flagrant transgression of the principles
enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among others, violence against
women is a violation of the right to life, liberty and personal safety (article 3); of the right
to not be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
(article 5); of the right to equality before the law and to equal protection under the law
(article 7); of the right to a fair trial (articles 8 and 10); of the right to freedom of
movement (article 13), and of the freedom of assembly and association (article 20).
It has also begun to be recognized that gender-based violence is a violation of the
right to identify, since it reinforces and reproduces the subordination of women to men, as
well as leading to a distortion of the human being; of the right to affection, since violence
is the antithesis of any expression of that sort; of the right to peace and enriching
personal relations, since it is a negative form of dispute settlement; of the right to
protection, since it creates a situation of defenselessness, not only vis--vis the husband
and the family but also in terms of the State, which denies protection to women, and
society, which denies that the problem exists; of the right to personal development, since
its victims suffer a form of psychological paralysis which prevents them from developing
their creative potential; of the right to social and political participation, because it inhibits
activities outside the household (with the exception of the bare minimum of activities
related to traditional roles), such as participating in organizations, groups or meetings; of
the right to freedom of expression, and of the right to an optimum state of physical and
mental health.
The United Nations General Assembly, at its forty-seventh session, agreed that the
violation of the human rights of women was not limited to acts perpetrated or directly
condoned by Governments, but rather that Governments bore a social and political
responsibility for acts committed by third parties if they had not taken the necessary
measures to prevent, investigate and punish acts of violence (United Nations, 1994).
According to this criterion, the State becomes a de facto accomplice if it does not offer
women the necessary protection from violations of their rights, or when it acts in
discriminatory fashion by not preventing or punishing acts of gender-based violence,
thereby denying women equal protection under the law. By the same token, the
incapacity of the State to put an end to social, economic and cultural conditions that
expose women to gender-based violence means that it is responsible for such violence,
since it should actively contribute to eradicating injustices and inequalities that manifest
themselves in gender relations. Nevertheless, the obligation of the State to protect the
human rights of all citizens (women and men), under all circumstances, does not eliminate
the conflict between the possibility of an arbitrary form of State intervention in people's
private lives and the control of all that which prevents the establishments of equitable
family relations; both alternatives deserve to be carefully analysed within the framework
of personal freedoms.
Since human rights are indivisible, it is impossible to recognize or defend some of
those rights but not others. Women's rights should receive the same attention as the rest
and should be considered in conjunction with those regarded as being the most pressing
or important. An integrated approach to human rights is the only way to ensure respect


for each and everyone of those rights and thus prevent them from being reduced to mere
formal categories lacking in substance.
2. Legislation on domestic violence
Gender-based violence is a universal problem, but in order to better understand the
patterns of violence and its causes and, hence, to eliminate them, the starting point
should be a knowledge of the particular historical and socio-cultural factors at work in
each specific context. Consequently, it is necessary to consider which civil rights and
responsibilities women are recognized as having in each society, as compared with those
of men, and the ways in which they relate to one another.
In keeping with their societies' mainstream values and with the Roman law and
Napoleonic code on which they are based, until very recently the laws of Latin America
and the Caribbean, upheld the notion of male ownership and male authority over women,
who were legally considered as "permanent minors or incapacitated persons", and even
ratified violence against them as a mechanism of punishment and control. In this sense, in
fact, married women received the least legal protection. Even though the Organization of
American States (OAS) had begun to take concrete measures against legally sanctioned
gender-based discrimination as far back as the 1920s,8 the commonplace nature of
gender-based violence in the home shows up the defects of the relevant legal systems
which stem from their lack of legal definitions of forms of behaviour that constitute
criminal acts, along with their failure to punish aggressors and protect victims. The lack of
specific legislation may be seen not only as a legal void but also as a form of complicity
on the part of the legal system with a societal pattern of discrimination against women
which has contributed to the invisibility of the phenomenon.
Since 1977, the year in which the Regional Plan of Action for the Integration of
Women into Latin American Economic and social Development was adopted, the need has
been recognized to revise existing legislation and legal regulations related to sexual and
physical violence against women. This Plan also recommends the adoption of measures to
ensure that the investigations of such crimes will be confidential (ECLAC, 1977), and
determined efforts have been made in the countries of the region to promulgate specific
laws on the subject. In addition, the steps taken to reform the countries' penal and civil
codes and other laws of a more general nature have caused the problem to be seen as a
political issue.
A number of legal proposals and bills of law have been presented to prevent and
penalize gender-based violence, and specifically gender-based violence in the home, based
on the conviction that one of the concrete problems that victims face is an inadequate
legal response. Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Costa Rica,
Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Venezuela and Uruguay are some of the
countries which have already launched reform processes.
The specific nature of gender-based violence in the home is such that other,
apparently less serious forms of behaviour may also be identified as acts of violence;
these types of conduct include verbal and emotional aggression, deprivation of liberty,
coercion, the infliction of physical injuries not severe enough to constitute serious bodily

The Fifth International Conference of American States, held in Santiago, Chile, in 1923,
agreed that every programme of that body should work for the abolition of constitutional and legal
provisions that deprived women of legal capacity in order to uphold their rights.


harm, and sexual abuse that does not constitute rape or ravishment. In this regard, the
United Nations group of experts on violence against women has stated that the concept
of "victimization" provides a clearer picture of victims' real needs for protection and
should be included in all legislation, since the concept of violence traditionally refers to
extreme cases (severe injury and femicide). A comparative analysis of legal proposals in
the region reveals similarities and differences which are, for the most part, associated
with two distinct models: 1) the consideration of mistreatment as a symptom of conflict,
and 2) the consideration of mistreatment as a crime; the procedures proposed are based
on one or the other of these two criteria (Chiarotti, 1993).9
The obvious progress made in the region in extending women's formal rights has
yet to lead to a practical application of those rights on a day-to-day basis either within or
outside the sphere of the administration of justice. Therefore, even though legislative
progress has provided more coverage in a declaratory sense, women are still restricted in
the exercise of their rights due to ideological resistance that perpetuates past
discrimination and thus hinders the assertion of existing rights today.
Despite the fact that procedural law should be a logical consequence of legal
mandates, in the countries that have already classified the crime, the existing penal
statutes appear to be ineffective because they are designed to resolve situations produced
by acts committed in public places and between persons not bound by affective ties or
family relationships. It often happens that, even when women do bring charges, the
ensuing legal proceedings do not prosper. Some of the reasons for this are the following:
the use of arguments in defence of family stability by officials of the judicial system to
persuade victims to drop the charges; the lack of "conclusive evidence" to begin
proceedings; the lack of "objective" eye witnesses (children are not considered valid
witnesses; moreover, it is unlikely that they will testify against the father on whom they
depend emotionally and economically and from whom they fear reprisals); the slowness of
the proceedings; the rigidity and complexity of penal processes that discourage victims
from continuing; and the fact that many women do not want their husbands to be jailed
but rather seek protection and support in order to escape from the situation of violence in
which they find themselves.
With respect to this last point, there have been cases in Chile and Argentina in
which judges have ordered aggressors to undergo psychological therapy, but these have
been personal initiatives rather than general policies of promoting rehabilitation and
preventing recurrence. However, the idea of remanding aggressors to individual therapy
and ordering them participate in self-help groups for vident men is becoming increasingly
widespread. For example, a group of professionals at the Agudo Avila psychiatric hospital,
run by the municipal health department of Rosario, Argentina, are getting aggressors
involved in the activities organized by the institution to assist women, based on the
assumption that violent conduct is learned from and reinforced by society and that the
resocialization of the aggressor is therefore vital in order to change his behaviour.
Studies indicate that it is essential for society's response to the phenomenon of

International bodies are constantly urging Governments to deepen their reforms and pay
attention to the different aspects of gender-based violence. The Declaration on the elimination of
violence against women (1990) recommends developing "penal, civil, labour and administrative
sanctions in domestic legislation to punish and redress the wrongs caused to women who are
subjected to violence; women who are subjected to violence should be provided with access to the
mechanisms of justice and, as provided for by national legislation, to just and effective remedies for
the harm that they have suffered (article 4, paragraph (d)) (United Nations, 1993a).


gender-based violence to include the elimination of the institutional hurdles facing women
which lead to "secondary victimization" (Viano, 1987), since when women seek help they
are treated with hostility or in a negligent or discriminatory fashion by officials in charge of
providing them with support. The victims are often blamed, and their version of the facts
is placed in doubt; the severity of acts of aggression is often downplayed through
associated with such factors as drunkenness and adultery, and there is a great deal of
resistance to recent legal changes. A number of countries in the region have responded to
the challenge of redefining the role that public officials can play in controlling and
preventing gender-based violence and have launched programmes to train and raise the
consciousness of personnel working in the justice system.
Throughout the world it is recognized that the police force plays a fundamental role
with respect to violence within the family in terms of both prevention and assistance. It is
considered to be a key element in a country's social response to this problem, inasmuch
as it is the only institution that combines the coercive power of the State with
accessibility, since in most countries it is the only service available 24 hours a day that
offers comprehensive geographical coverage (Ahumada and Arancibia, 1993). The data
that have been collected confirm that, in general terms, the police response to the
demands of victims of gender-based violence is unsatisfactory and exhibits a tendency
towards secondary victimization. In response, efforts have been mounted in the region to
set up female police units and to provide training and instruction to police officers of both
In 1985, the first all-women force (police officers, detectives and social workers)
opened its doors in So Paulo. In its first year in operation, the force responded to
200 calls, and in 1988 a single unit received 7,000 calls (Statiom, 1989). Following this
example, by 1992 state governments already had 240 such units in Brazil, and by 1993
Colombia had 70 family police units, which promote negotiations between those involved
as a means of overcoming violence within the family (ECLAC, 1993c). In Ecuador, on
9 March 1994 the Ministry of Governance and Policy approved the establishment of
female police forces in four of the country's main cities (Quito, Guayaquil, Cuenca and
Portoviejo); since then, women's organizations have been carrying out information and
training activities in an effort to make these police units into effective instruments for the
defence of victims. The existence of these institutions has also led to the provision of
better care to victims, while the systematization of the statistical data collected has made
it possible to identify the groups of women that have been the most severely affected and
the different forms in which gender-based violence is manifested in the countries of the
It is important to point out that prompt reporting and effective penal and legal
procedures play a significant role in putting a stop to aggression. A study undertaken by
the legal team of the Centre for the Treatment of Domestic Violence, of the Municipality
of Santiago, Chile, found that in 72.5% of the cases, aggressors who received a
summons from police or legal authorities, or who learned that they were being
investigated, stopped committing acts of violence as they became aware that they would
no longer go unpunished, whereas 5% became more violent. In 22.5% of the cases, the
reaction of the aggressor could not be ascertained because the women withdrew the
charges or because the process had just recently begun (Ulloa and Vargas, 1991).
It is agreed that in Latin America and the Caribbean the mere promulgation of laws
is insufficient; women first have to know what those laws are and what their rights are
before they can assert them or feel protected by a legal system that will punish crimes
committed against them and will not allow society to ignore them. This is the idea that


underlies the work of most centres for battered women and of legal aid offices funded by
non-governmental organizations, such as the Centre for Legal Services to Women
(CENSEL) of the Dominican Republic, The Women's Legal Office of Cochabamba, Bolivia,
and the Women's House of Chimbote, Peru.
The Latin American Committee in Defence of Women's Rights (CLADEM), which
was founded in Lima in 1987 and now has affiliated offices in more than 10 countries of
the region, has made an important contribution to the legal analysis of violence. The
Committee has organized seminars and debates and published studies on family
legislation, constitutional and labour laws and human rights, applying the gender
perspective to an alternative interpretation of law which takes into account the needs and
interests of the women concerned.
The establishment, in most of the countries of the region, of government offices for
women affairs, under the authority of different ministries or secretariats has, despite
insufficient allocations of financial and human resources, done a great deal to advance
national or provincial-level activities and programmes to deal with gender-based violence,
especially within the home. Generally speaking, these institutions have played a key role
in drafting legislation, creating greater public awareness and raising the consciousness of
political figures and legislators. Given the multi-dimensional character of gender-based
violence, which calls for integrated responses and cross-sectoral government measures,
mechanisms to coordinate joint actions have been established, as in the case of the
Interministerial Commission for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, founded in Chile in
May 1992.



The main victims of domestic and family violence are normally children, the elderly and
women, but research shows that most victims are women; at the global level, at least one
out of every 10 women has been attacked by their spouse or partner (United Nations,
1986c). International statistics indicate that 2% of the victims of acts of violence
committed by a spouse or partner are men; 75% are women, and 23% are cases of
reciprocal violence (Corsi, 1990). These data point up a number of the phenomenon's
peculiar characteristics and underscore the vulnerability of all women, regardless of their
age or socio-economic status.
Societies exhibit forms of violence that affect the entire spectrum of human
relations; consequently, structural (social, political and economic) violence is also reflected
in the family and in the gender relations that are routinely established at work and school.
Thus, violence against women in the domestic sphere cannot be divorced from its social
context, which reinforces and perpetuates sexist concepts and a discriminatory social
order based on the historical production and reproduction of the gender system. This type
of violence has many causes, including the types of socio-cultural conditions that breed it.
The gender-based division of labour, on the one hand, and, on the other, the ideological
and cultural attitudes acquired through the differential socialization process and the dayto-day learning process by which stereotyped roles and psychological traits are attributed
to men and women and become integrated into their self-identities create conditions that
contribute to violence.10 Aggression and mistreatment, then, are not isolated acts but
instead form part of an interactive process driven by values linked to relationships of
domination and submission and to inequality between the sexes.
Domestic violence calls into question the family as a social institution that provides
security, protection and affection, as well as the roles and functions traditionally assigned
to each of its members. It also reveals its paradoxical character. Even though, in our
countries, the existence of different family structures and forms of cohabitation is
recognized (ECLAC, 1993b) and these structures are now being subjected to a critical
analysis, families are, for the most part, organized around the power of the male members
at all hierarchical levels. It is structured, therefore, on the basis of strong bonds of
domination and notably unequal power relations, all of which has an impact on women.
The role assigned to women in conjugal life is based on submission, dependence and the
acceptance of the indisputable authority of the man and of an array of norms and
behaviour patterns that limit women's development. In this context, men can punish

The roles and characteristics that are culturally assigned to women restrict their options
and their autonomy and are based on a repressive and symbolic form of violence that is expressed
in the limitations imposed on them in terms of employment, social participation, decision-making
and power at all levels; this is what is known as "invisible violence", which includes objective
situations of aggression, either physical, psychological or sexual, direct or indirect (Giberti and
Fernndez, 1989).


women or control their forms of expression, mobility and sexuality. Violence in the home
is used as a functional instrument of power to reinforce male authority and supremacy
and to enforce women's fulfilment of the obligations that society imposes upon them
within the family.
Research findings indicate, in general, that gender-based violence in the home
cannot be attributed to individual pathologies or psychological problems, nor to factors
derived from the socio-economic structure or the external environment, since aggression
and abuse occur in all social strata.11 The only major differences observed between social
strata have to do with the prevalence of physical, psychological or sexual damage or
injury. Alcoholism, unemployment, overcrowding and other such problems are not
considered to be direct causes of violence but are instead thought to act as associated
factors or trigger mechanisms.
Violence against women in the home has a number of particular characteristics that
differentiate it from other types of aggression and abuse; these include the space in which
it takes place, the actors involved, and the set of psychological factors that enter into
play, all of which contribute to the complexity of the problem and may obscure its
significance and perception. Gender-based violence can be analysed in different ways in
theoretical and methodological terms. One such approach, from a descriptive viewpoint,
refers to the "cycle of violence", which begins with minor aggressions that then build up
to a climax, and then decrease. This is followed by a period of repentance on the part of
the aggressor, after which the cycle is repeated. This analysis does not explain the causes
of violence nor the mechanisms involved in its reproduction, and an overall perspective is
therefore needed to recognize the gender oppression reflected in such events. The
classification of domestic violence into physical, psychological, sexual and indirect
violence12 is an important contribution at the descriptive level, but raises problems from a
conceptual viewpoint, since it makes it difficult to handle empirical information on this
basis and divides a phenomenon that is unique and indivisible into artificial categories. The
different kinds of gender-based violence found in the home combine and intertwine with
one another, its segmentation has consequently had negative effects on the provision of
assistance and on the design of preventive policies and programmes.
1. Research findings
Research on the prevalence of gender-based violence has been carried out in several
countries of the region. Although the results are not directly comparable because different
methodologies and data collection techniques have been used, they are nonetheless quite
valuable because they clearly show the magnitude and intensity of the problem. Table 1
gives a summary of the findings of some of these studies.


Resolution 1990/15 of the United Nations Economic and Social Council recognizes that
violence against women in the family and society penetrates and crosses all social classes and
"Indirect violence" occurs when the aggressor destroys personal objects or property of the
woman, refuses to contribute to the support of the household, prohibits the woman from working
or studying, prevents her from having social contacts and controls her activities and friendships, all
as part of an effort to limit her freedom and her opportunities for taking decisions based on her
own criteria and desires.


Table 1





97 women between 20
and 45 years of age

30% of the women

have been physically

50% of the women

say their mothers
were physically


264 women and 243 men

between 20 and 45 years
of age

30% of the women

have been physically

50% of the women

and men say their
mothers were
physically mistreated


1,000 women between 22

and 55 years of age, from
three social strata, in
relationships that have
lasted more than two years

Two out of every three

women say they have
been victims of violence
(26.2% physical and
33.5% psychological)

70% say they have

been victims of abuse
more than once a
year (study
conducted in


3,272 urban and 2,118

rural women

20% report physical

mistreatment, 33%
report psychological
abuse, and 10% say
they have been victims
of marital rape

Part of the
demography and
health survey carried
out in Colombia in

Costa Ricad

1,388 women

54% report having been

physically mistreated

Study sponsored by


200 working-class women

in Quito

60% have been

physically mistreated by
legal or common-law

37% of such
episodes were
repeated every day
for a month


1,000 women from


49% have been abused;

in 74% of these cases,
the aggressor is the
partner in a stable

Study funded by


1,163 rural and 427 urban

women from Jalisco

56.7% of urban and

44.2% of rural women
have participated in
interpersonal acts of

In more than 60% of

the cases, the main
aggressor was the
legal or common-law

Table 1 (concl.)


Lorie Heise, Jacqueline Pitanguy and Adrienne Germain, "Violence against women: the
hidden health burden", working paper prepared for the World Bank, Washington, D.C.,
Penn Handwerker, "Gender power differences between parents and high risk sexual behavior
by their children: AIDS/STD risk factors extend to a prior generation", Journal of Women's
Health, 1993.
Association for Family Welfare (PROFAMILIA), La violencia y los derechos humanos de la
mujer, Santa Fe de Bogot, 1992.
K. Chacn and others, "Caractersticas de la mujer agredida atendida en el Patronato de la
infancia", La violencia contra la mujer en la familia costarricense: un problema de salud
pblica, Gioconda Batres and Cecilia Claramount (eds.), San Jos, United Nations Latin
American Institute for the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, 1990.
Soledad Larran and others, Estudio de prevalencia de la violencia intrafamiliar y la situacin
de la mujer en Chile, Santiago, Chile, 1993.
L. Barragn, A. Ayala and G. Camacho, Proyecto educativo sobre violencia de gnero en la
relacin domstica de pareja, Quito, Social Planning and Study Centre (CEPLAES), 1992.
Federico Coy (1990), in Delia Castillo and others, Violencia hacia la mujer en Guatemala,
Primer seminario centroamericano sobre violencia contra la mujer como un problema de salud
pblica, Managua, March 1992.
Juan Carlos Ramrez and Griselda Uribe, "Mujer y violencia: un hecho cotidiano", Salud
pblica de Mxico, Cuernavaca, Instituto Nacional de Salud Pblica, 1993.



In 1990 a UNICEF technical mission in Panama agreed to carry out a research

project in Central America on domestic violence against women which would explore the
covert way in which the problem is dealt with and the lack of awareness of its magnitude
in the subregion. General research guidelines were adopted to determine the similarities
and differences between countries, and exploratory studies were carried out in each of
them, with the following main results: a) the most common form of domestic aggression
is conjugal; b) acts of violence take place in the victim's own household, where the victim
generally lives with her spouse or partner; c) most of the cases of aggression take place at
night; d) the most common reasons why battered women seek assistance in health care
or legal aid institutions are physical violence consisting of blows to different parts of the
body and, to a lesser extent, psychological or sexual aggression.
Services that provide support to abused women are a source of valuable data on
the magnitude and characteristics of gender-based violence because they possess
information on the scope of the problem and on recurrence rates. For example, according
to the telephone records of the Family Violence Prevention and Assistance Programme in
Buenos Aires, the Programme receives 600 calls a month; of these, 66% are requests for
care and information, and 40% are requests for emergency assistance. Women between
25 and 54 years of age comprise 97.4% of the relevant population group, which means
that the problem affects women during the most productive period of their lives. In all,
85.5% of the calls were made by victims themselves, 9.1% by relatives and only 5.4%
by other members of the community (mostly neighbours). This indicates that even though
third parties may know about a woman being abused, they generally do not intervene or
do anything to prevent or report it (Argentina, Subsecretara de la Mujer y Solidaridad
Social, 1993).
The systematization and evaluation of the services offered by the centres for
battered women which operate at the municipal and provincial levels in many countries of
the region will provide more and better statistical data in the future to serve as a basis for
the formulation of policies for eradicating gender-based violence and strengthening social


support networks at the local level. These centres have interdisciplinary teams, comprised
mainly of women psychologists, social workers, lawyers and group leaders who specialize
in this field, to provide integral assistance to women seeking help, but their record-keeping
systems are still inadequate or have only recently been set up. This points to the need to
coordinate practices at the national and regional levels so that the different institutions
will have comparable records on the types of acts of violence committed, the
characteristics of the aggressor and of the victim, the relationship between the two, the
circumstances in which the crime was committed, information on past episodes in cases
of repeated aggression, and prior complaints or charges. This would contribute to a fuller
understanding of the problem, and therefore to the adoption of more effective measures.
2. Main consequences of domestic violence
Gender-based violence in the household, when understood as an act that denies a woman
the ability to exercise her rights, has social, economic and political implications for
society, since it reproduces and perpetuates a system of discrimination against and
subordination of more than half the population and constitutes a violation of human rights.
It also reflects the absence of a socio-political structure characterized by the type of
greater symmetry in social relations that would provide a substantive basis for the
consolidation of democracy and directly or indirectly impedes the harmonious development
of nations (Rico, 1992).
Acts of aggression against women have many negative consequences. The World
Health Organization (WHO) considers gender-based violence to be a serious public health
problem, since the following effects have been identified:
Physical injuries: fractures, burns, cuts, bruises, wounds, headaches, temporary or
permanent disability, sexual abuse, gynecological problems, unwanted pregnancies,
premature births, miscarriages, sexually transmitted diseases, transmission of the HIV
virus, and the abusive consumption of alcohol, drugs and tobacco.
Psychological damage: depression, anxiety, anguish, eating disorders, stress,
phobias, obsessions, compulsive behaviour, toxic substance, abuse, insomnia,
hypersomnia, frigidity, low self-esteem, sexual dysfunctions, emotional instability,
decreased productivity and reduction of cognitive and intellectual capacities. Two other
phenomena which must be added to this list have fatal consequences: suicide and
homicide.13 In view of the psychological vulnerability of the victims who normally react
to the situation with guilt feelings, low self-esteem, shame and fear different State
agencies and non-governmental organizations have set up "self-help groups", whose basic
purpose is for the participants to given one another mutual emotional support so that they
can escape from the silence and isolation in which they usually experience such
aggression. One of the first to carry out this kind of activity was the "Women's Place", an
organization headquartered in Buenos Aires that works with self-help groups comprised of
victims of abuse. These groups offer interested women a place where they can share their
experiences and learn to value themselves as persons while at the same time becoming

According to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) (1993), between 45% and
60% of homicides involving women victims are committed in the family environment, and in most
cases the killer is the spouse. Moreover, these crimes are preceded by a history of repeated physical
abuse. Suicide attempts are 12 times more frequent among women who are victims of violence
than among those who are not.


more sure of themselves so that they will be able to break the destructive circle of
Gender-based violence has particularly serious repercussions for children who live in
households where it is habitual. Abused women say that their children become nervous,
irritable and fearful, do poorly in school, and are often physically abused by the father or
by the women themselves. Today, children who witness violence are also considered to
be "battered children", since they exhibit the same psychological symptoms as do those
who are the direct victims of abuse (Jaffe and others, 1986). Another factor that needs
to be considered is that children depend emotionally and affectively on their parents, and
that they tend to imitate the roles and behaviour they observe. Therefore, later on they
may have problems establishing affective relations different from those they experienced
in their childhood. Thus, children in such households tend to grow up to be violent men
and battered women, and may also have greater tolerance for social and political violence.
Some countries have established shelters where abused women can go, together
with their children, so that if they have no help from family members nor the economic
means to look for another place to live, they can leave the scene of aggression and be in a
place where they feel safe while they try to resolve the problem. An example of
this is Refuge House, a shelter for abused women and children in Quito, which was
founded as a result of an agreement between the Ministry of Social Welfare,
represented by the National Women's Department, and the Ecuadorian Centre for
Women's Advancement and Action (CEPAM). Over a 29-month period (1991-1993), this
centre provided shelter to 245 women who had been battered by their spouses and
counseling to another 120 non-residents, for an average of one case every 2.5 days (Vega
and Gmez, 1993).
Gender-based violence is a cause of concern for a number of international
organizations, not only because of its individual physical and psychological consequences,
but also because it places greater demands on general health care and emergency services
and has a high economic cost for the countries where it occurs. The 1993 World
Development Report of the World Bank states that in market economies it is possible to
determine the number of years of life in good health lost by women during their
reproductive years (15-44 years of age) because of premature death or illness directly
attributable to problems caused by domestic violence or rape. Although these problems
cannot be considered as illnesses in and of themselves, they are clearly important risk
factors that increase the incidence of such phenomena as injuries, depression, and
femicide (World Bank, 1993).
Violence also inhibits women from playing a role in decision-making within the
household, at work and in the political, economic and social spheres, and therefore
directly influences their participation in public activities and, hence, the exercise of
their citizenship. The social costs of gender-based violence also include the inaction
of society when it fails to take measures to defend the human rights of women, since
society is then ignoring events that take place on a daily basis and is denying a
public discussion of these crimes, their political significance and societal means of
redressing them.


3. Reporting of domestic violence

Ideological and cultural factors enter into play when women have to decide how they are
going to deal with the aggression and abuse they undergo. Gender-based violence in the
household is a behaviour pattern that has become assimilated as a type of marital
relationship and, because of the existing bias against intervening in the privacy of
married and family life, has been covered up by society and by the victims themselves.
Women tolerate extremely harmful relationships and many women cannot imagine another
way of living together, due, inter alia, to the following: a) they internalize social values
that see female subordination as "natural"; b) they accept cultural norms that regulate the
life of a couple and the roles of spouse and mother; c) they idealize the family and
marriage; and d) they are under social pressure to accept the dominant cultural mandates
(Rico, 1992).
Only recently have women begun to report aggression and mistreatment inflicted
upon them in the home; this is partially due to the establishment of institutions where
they can seek police and legal help, and partially to women's greater awareness of their
rights as persons and citizens. Although the reporting of such acts is becoming
increasingly common, it still is only a pale reflection of the actual state of affairs.
Victims generally do not seek legal recourse because of such inhibiting factors as fear
of being blamed for breaking up the family, fear of reprisals from their spouse, shame
about airing their personal affairs in public, and a belief that police and legal agencies
will not back the victims up and are ineffective. Another factor is the paradox that women
usually blame themselves for the violence, since cultural norms tell them that they are
responsible for maintaining the harmony of the family group and that they must therefore
make greater sacrifices, since any failure or transgression may be grounds for punishment.
If the family and the couple are considered to be the only socially valid goals for
women, it is difficult for them to do anything but aspire to establish and preserve a
household of their own, even at the cost of their own integrity, since admitting failure in
this sphere would be tantamount to admitting failure in life as a whole. According to some
studies, most women who fail to report violence have small children, which indicates that
this is one of the main factors that leads women to refrain from breaking up their family,
even at the costs of their own suffering. According to telephone records of calls from
abused women in the city of Buenos Aires, 73% of those who request help have been
involved in situations of family violence for more than 10 years, while in only 2.6% of the
cases does the caller seek intervention after the first episode (Argentina, Subsecretara de
la Mujer y Solidaridad Social, 1993).
Doctors in free emergency wards in Santiago, Chile, estimate that they treat only
around 20% of the cases of violence with physical injury; the rest of the victims stay in
their homes until the marks left by the aggression disappear. What is more, only 15% of
the women who are treated report the fact to the police (Guerra, 1991). There are also
cases of women who respond violently to aggression, which produces mutual violence.
The murder of a man by his legal or common-law wife is normally an extreme defensive
response to constant aggression.
Research projects in the region agree that many women put up with violence
because they are economically dependent on the aggressor. The lack of services,
problems in finding a well-paid job and socio-economic circumstances contribute to their
indecision about reporting acts of violence. This suggests that priority should be given to
employment and training for women in a wider variety of fields, since economic autonomy
is thus one factor in providing protection against abuse.


The training of group leaders to act as community agents to help prevent and curb
gender-based violence is based on a recognition of the need for the community itself to
take measures to tackle the problem, stimulate collective changes and make possible the
establishment of social assistance networks. Experience shows that the provision of
support and information by other women whose living situations are similar to those of
the victims helps to convince them to report the acts of aggression they undergo to the
authorities and to act with more assurance and assertiveness.



The equality of opportunities for men and women in the labour force is jeopardized by the
sexual harassment of women in the workplace, which is a violation of the right to
equitable and satisfactory working conditions,14 as well as the right to sexual freedom.
Sexual harassment in the workplace is understood to be any intentional sexual behaviour
within the context of a working relationship, which influences the possibility of
employment, job stability, performance or working conditions or atmosphere and which is
distasteful or offensive to the victim. It entails blackmail, threats or pressure, and is
manifested either directly or indirectly in acts that range from very subtle behaviour to
open sexual aggression (Dlano and Todaro, 1993). The exact extent of the problem is
not known, owing to a lack of statistics (a problem that affects all the countries of the
region), social concealment, a dearth of laws on the subject, and the guilt feelings and
fear of the victims, but existing studies indicate that the practice is widespread.
Although sexual harassment is a highly complex problem that distorts interpersonal
relationships and is difficult to identify and delimit, it is generally agreed that the power
relation between those involved is unequal and abused. Since women generally occupy
lower-ranking positions in the employment structure, they are more vulnerable to this
practice, although cases where women harass men also occur. The elements that make
sexual harassment possible are the total concentration of power in the hands of a male
boss on whom a woman depends in order to obtain or keep her job and who determines
her wages, job performance evaluation, possibilities for promotion, training, and the kind
and degree of difficulty of the work she must do. There are also risk factors such as
women's lower level of job skills, the lack of social recognition of the tasks they perform,
the more dependent nature of their employment situation, and their lesser degree of
autonomy and decision-making power. Besides these elements, there are also women's
socially conditioned lack of assertiveness in resisting and reporting instances of
intimidation and coercion and the socialization that leads them to think that seduction,
overt or otherwise, forms part of any relationship with men.
Sexual harassment not only arises out of objective differences in the amount of
power held in the workplace but also out of the "cultural power" which men exercise over
women, in accordance with the predominant gender system which discriminates against
women through the control, disposition and use of their sexuality and bodies. There are
also cases, therefore, of sexual harassment among colleagues or on the part of lowerranking employees of women managers. In these cases, harassment is a mechanism used
to debase their role in the work place, their professional capabilities and their leadership
abilities and to draw attention to their sexuality, while at the same time undermining the
exercise of power of authority by women.
Research in Santiago, Chile, based on interviews with 1,200 female workers in

A right established in article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights and in articles
6 and 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.


different branches of activity and of varying ranks, skills, incomes, schooling and
occupations, found that 84.3% of the women thought that sexual harassment in the
workplace was a fact; 20% reported having been harassed themselves, 78.4% said that
sexual harassment should not be regarded simply as a personal problem, and 88.3%
stated that it was clearly different from seduction or attraction. The study points out that
it is possible to distinguish between more direct forms of sexual harassment, which affect
women in a situation of subordination to the hierarchical power of men, and the type of
sexual harassment that consists of attempts to discredit women who occupy posts not
traditionally held by women or other sorts of high-level positions, which takes the form of
"putting the women in their place" (Dlano and Todaro, 1993). In both cases, harassment
performs the function of "disciplining" women in the working world.
Despite its negative character, many women put up with sexual harassment and
suffer it in silence, with feelings of shame, confusion, anguish, fear of ruining their
reputation or of reprisals, and with guilt feelings in a social environment that normally
places the blame on them, based on the stereotype and myth of the "temptress".
Research in Chile shows that most women do not dare to talk about it, and also that 15%
of the victims of sexual harassment think that the situation will resolve itself, 6.3% say
that will not ask for help because they are embarrassed, and 32% do not know where or
to whom to turn for help (Dlano and Todaro, 1993). It is difficult for victims to prove
that they have been harassed, which heightens the negative consequences, not only for
their mental health, but also in the workplace, since harassment affects female workers'
efficiency and productivity, their attitude towards work, their professional development,
and the overall atmosphere of the workplace.
Although sexual harassment takes place in all branches of work, it is much more
likely to occur when women work without permanent employment contracts and in places
where trade union activity is restricted. According to records of the number of complaints
filed, sexual harassment is common, for example, in maquila industries in Honduras, El
Salvador, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. In Nicaragua, the first major strike in
that sector was organized by more than 850 female workers who accused their
supervisors of sexual harassment, physical mistreatment and constant surveillance (Bank
and Criquillion, 1993).
All the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have signed the three
conventions on equality drafted by the International Labour Organization (ILO): Convention
100 on Equal Pay; Convention 111 on Discrimination in Respect of Employment and
Occupation, and Convention 156 on Equal Opportunities and Equal Treatment for Men
and Women: Workers with Family Responsibilities.15 However, thus far most of the labour
codes and labour laws of the countries of the region have no specific provisions on sexual
harassment, although in recent years some of them have incorporated regulations or legal
clauses designed to prevent or sanction this manifestation of gender-based violence. It is
important to mention that in all the countries these laws make reference to the possibility
that in the case of sexual harassment the victims and aggressors can be either men or
In 1991, Mexico made sexual harassment an offense under title XV of its penal
code, punishable by up to 40 days in prison. In Peru, the Job Stability Act (No. 24514)
classifies sexual harassment as a serious violation on the part of employers or their
representatives, but there is no provision in Peruvian law that clearly specifies how sexual

ILO Convention 100 dates from 1951, Convention 111 from 1958, and Convention 156
from 1981.


harassment is to be defined, nor are there any preventive mechanisms. Late in 1993,
Argentina issued a decree to protect persons against sexual harassment in the nation's
civil service. The legal definition of such conduct was set forth as "repeated acts of a
sexual nature which are unwelcome to the person towards whom they are directed, are
not reciprocated and affect the stability of employment or likelihood of promotion".
Female public employees can therefore report any kind of sexual harassment to the human
resources department of the relevant body; their complaints will be kept confidential and
will be followed up by an investigation. The established sanctions, which vary according
to the seriousness of the circumstances, include warning, suspension, and dismissal.
However, since the problem of sexual harassment is normally related to the position
women occupy in the hierarchical structure, policies and laws intended to prevent and
penalize such conduct can be more effective if they form part of a broader strategy to
promote equal opportunities in the workplace and to improve the status of women in
Sexual harassment is not limited to the workplace. This form of abuse of authority
and blackmail is also found in educational institutions, where it consists of imposing
undesired sexual activity on female students as a requirement for passing a course. There
is a tremendous lack of statistical information on this form of harassment in the region,
due to the absence of studies on the causes, forms and consequences of sexual
harassment of female students. Furthermore, when incidents of this nature do become
known, they are usually extreme cases of rape or abuse of minors.



Sexual freedom must be considered as a legal right requiring two different types of
protection: positive protection of the right to exercise one's sexuality freely, and negative
protection of every person's right to be free of any imposed form of sexual contact.
Rape is the most extreme form of sexual violence and is based essentially on the
use of physical force and terror. It inflicts severe physical and emotional injuries on its
victims. Some of its worst consequences, because they are irreversible, are the
transmission of the HIV virus and unwanted pregnancy,16 since even in cases of rape,
abortion is a punishable offence in most countries of the region.
The erroneous public perception of the phenomenon of sexual violence is a subject
that merits discussion. There is a general perception that rapists are unknown to their
victims, that they exhibit psychopathological and antisocial personality traits and that rape
occurs in places and at times considered to be dangerous; in actual fact, studies reveal
that a woman is more likely to be raped by a relative or an acquaintance than by a
stranger. For example, study carried out by the documentation and Information Centre on
Social Movements of Ecuador found that, in 83% of the rape cases reported to the
authorities, the rapist is a family member or an acquaintance of the victim (Len, 1992).
Rape victims face not only the social stigmatization which lays the blame for the
rape on them, but also a secondary, institutional form of victimization, should they report
the rape or commence legal proceedings. A study conducted in Chile at the request of the
National Women's Service (SERNAM) found that 75% to 80% of all cases of sexual
abuse or violence go unreported and that of those cases which are reported to the
appropriate authorities, 89% do not result in the conviction of the rapist (Avendao and
Vergara, 1992). Results of a survey of Mexican judiciary officials show that 64.28% of
those polled tend to disbelieve reports of rape made by young women, whom they accuse
of trying to hide a pregnancy resulting from a voluntary relationship; 47.61% consider it
necessary to ask questions concerning the intimate sexual life of the victim; and 85.38%
require that a medical examination be conducted (an unconstitutional measure) before
they will process the charges (Gonzlez, 1993).
Non-governmental organizations in a number of countries have set up shelters and
information centres for rape victims. In 1983, a group of women concerned by the
growing frequency of sexual abuse in Trinidad and Tobago set up a committee for rape
victims, which in 1984 began to offer a telephone helpline and by 1986 had developed
into a centre that offers these women assistance. The centre has also participated in the
public debate on laws related to gender-based violence, and has proposed the inclusion of
measures on marital rape in the Sexual Offences Act.
In the legal sphere reforms are urgently required in penal codes which employ
discriminatory expressions such as "maidens" or "women of good or ill repute" and which

According to data compiled by a centre for rape victims in Mexico City, around 15% of the
women seeking help had become pregnant as a result of the rape (COVAC, 1990).


provide penalties that vary depending on the characteristics of the victim and her sexual
history; such penal codes are based on subjective criteria and are an affront to all the
principles of equality before the law. In a similar fashion, a symbolic form of violence is to
be observed in the judicial language which describes rape in the public sphere, as a crime
against "decency", "honour", "modesty" or "respectability" when in actual fact it
constitutes a crime against sexual freedom and the integrity of the individual. Several
countries, such as Mexico, have now incorporated these concepts into the law, however.
Nonetheless, in some countries the law still exonerates any man who marries the girl or
woman he has raped, on the grounds that the marriage restores the "honour" of the
woman and her family.
In this context, the sexual abuse and rape of children and adolescents
(granddaughters, daughters, stepdaughters and sisters of the rapist) in their own homes
demand special attention; all the more so if it is borne in mind that these crimes, which
are classified as incest, have yet to be thoroughly analysed by government authorities.
According to information provided by a public maternity hospital in Lima, 90% of mothers
aged between 12 and 16 had become pregnant as the result of a rape perpetrated, in
most cases, by a member of their immediate family (Rosas, 1992). Information provided
by a non-governmental organization in Costa Rica painted a similar picture when it
revealed that 95% of pregnant women under 15 years of age who received attention
were the victims of incest (Treguear and Caro, 1991).
The sexual abuse and rape of women are also frequently used as a form of political
reprisal, as has been documented in the case of dictatorships in the Southern Cone
countries and armed conflicts in Central America and Peru. Sexual violence against female
political prisoners is one form of torture used during punishment sessions or interrogations
and is designed to denigrate the prisoner both sexually and physically. Women who are
jailed or arrested for other than political reasons also often fall victim to sexual violence
and, ironically, are in many cases assaulted by the very men who are responsible for their
safety. One member of the Ecumenical Commission on Human Rights in Ecuador has
stated that "the methods of investigation directed at women seek to assault their
sexuality, so that rape, the threat of rape and sexual humiliation form the foundation of
these investigations" (Vega and Gmez, 1993, p. 20). The Regional Plan of Action for the
Integration of Women into Latin American Economic and Social Development (1977) calls
for the adoption of measures designed to ensure respect for human rights as well as the
physical integrity of women deprived of their freedom for whatever reason (ECLAC,
1977). Similarly, the Naiarobi Strategies propose the adoption of initiatives designed to
protect women from the physical violence and the sexual and moral harassment they face
when jailed or arrested (United Nations, 1986a).
Displaced and refugee women, who find themselves obliged to leave their place of
origin and move to other locations, whether in the same country or elsewhere, deserve
special attention, in view of the specific forms of violence they suffer. Although political
and military violence obliges men and women alike to leave their places of residence, and
affects them in a similar way because they are both victims of the same kind of
aggression, the experiences of men and women, and the meaning and connotations
attached to these experiences, cannot be seen as independent from a gender-based
analysis, especially considering the issue of rape and the mistreatment and assaults
women suffer at the hands of the men who form part of those same displaced population
groups. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has
urged that measures should be adopted to protect women against violence in shelters and
is promoting the establishment of oversight committees in refugee camps to which rape


victims can turn for help. In a similar vein, the UNHCR recommends that Governments
accept refugees and, in cases where internal displacements have occurred, it recommends
that Governments carry out investigations, to determine the extent of gender-based
violence suffered by displaced women in all its various forms (Executive Committee of the
High Commissioner's Programme, 1991 and FOREFEM, 1992).
Sex tourism, illegal trafficking in women and their exploitation through prostitution
are other forms of gender-based violence which merit special attention, especially in the
light of the increase of poverty and unemployment in the region, both of which are
aggravating factors. The need to adopt legislative and other types of measures to combat
these practices, particularly those which affect children and young women, is recognized
both in the Declaration of Mexico on the Equality of Women and their Contribution to
Development and Peace (1975) and in the Regional Plan of Action for the Integration of
Women into Latin American Economic and Social Development (1977) (ECLAC, 1993).
The Nairobi Strategies draw attention to the need to monitor the application of the
Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of the
Prostitution of Others. In view of the fact that these are considered a violation of the
human rights of women, it was decided at a meeting which took place in March 1994 in
Caracas to establish the Latin American and Caribbean Network Against the Exploitation
of Women and Children in Trafficking and Prostitution.


It is vital that specific measures be taken to uphold the human rights of women and to
address the gender-based violence to which they are subjected. One starting point in this
regard is the need to reaffirm the irrefutable and enduring nature of the rights of women,
together with the obligation to protect and guarantee these rights under all circumstances
and to guard against any effort to subordinate them or annex them to a larger agenda
which would undermine their substantive validity.
The seriousness of the different forms of gender-based violence, given the
magnitude of this violence and its consequences for individuals and society, makes it
imperative that urgent initiatives be taken to support and protect victims, and to ensure
that women are able to assert and exercise their rights as human beings and that society
has instruments at its disposal to punish aggressors. It is equally vital that preventive
strategies be designed and implemented at the political, legislative, legal and educational
levels; the positive effects of such strategies will become evident over the medium and
long term.
Effective measures to deal with this problem cannot be adopted without taking into
account the dominant cultural model and the processes of symbolic reproduction that
confer legitimacy on gender-based violence. Because the roots of the problem are
structural, it is essential to implement public policies which will modify the mechanisms
that lead to the perpetuation and propagation of gender-based violence and will engender
an environment that is conducive to equality between men and women and respect for
the dignity of human beings.
In view of the differing forms which gender-based violence assumes and its
multidimensional nature, a need exists for specific analyses and investigations and for
different strategies that take into consideration the types of relationships in which
women's rights are violated and the institutions and sectors involved in preventing and
dealing with such violations. For example, sexual harassment in the workplace calls for
action on the part of management and trade unions, whereas sexual harassment in
educational establishments calls for an active response by the authorities, students and
parents and teachers associations. Given the complexity of the phenomenon of genderbased violence, responses to the problem must necessarily be based on an integrated
approach; furthermore, the effectiveness of measures and initiatives will depend on the
degree of coherence and coordination associated with their design and implementation.
Considered on the basis of these premises, the issue is one that affects a variety of social
actors, who can join in the effort to eliminate gender-based violence. However, in the
proposals which are outlined below, we shall concentrate on government action at all
The origins of gender-based violence can be traced to a variety of socio-cultural
factors, namely: hierarchial relationship between women and men; the differentiated
socialization of boys and girls; the political, economic and legal discrimination faced by
women; the use of violent means to resolve interpersonal conflicts; and unequal


symbolizations and valuations of women's and men's bodies and sexuality. As a

consequence, it is vital to promote women's access to decision-making processes and to
the exercise of power in its different dimensions, since strengthening their participation in
these processes will surely contribute to the elimination of the violence women face and
to an egalitarian distribution of the rights and responsibilities of all citizens, whether male
or female.
By the same token, it is necessary that we seek to redefine the meaning and
content of gender relations. The State should foster a national and regional discussion on
the effects of discrimination against women, the violation of their rights as human beings
and, in particular, the consequences for society of gender-based violence. Sensitization to
this issue and the creation of a greater awareness of it should be accompanied by the
establishment of institutional mechanisms which provide for participation in the
discussion, along with the governmental sector, of representatives of civil society and
organizations that have developed agendas for action and have delved into the issue, as
well as the entire spectrum of women's groups and sectors, whose participation should
be channelled through the organizations they have formed. This discussion should
encompass an analysis of the ideological and cultural aspects which result in continued
violation of human rights, so as to contribute to a collective recognition of the
unacceptability of violence, within both the family and the wider community, and to the
creation of a social climate which rejects acts of violence.
Since formal education plays a vital role in handing down values and attitudes, a
major effort should be made to ensure that boys and girls undergo the same type of
socialization in order to put an end to the perpetuation of violence from one generation to
the next. The educational system should modify textbooks which foster rigid social and
sexual roles and contribute to the existence of asymmetrical and hierarchial relationships
within the family and society. School curricula should include topics related to human
rights and, in the context of education for peace, students should be exposed to
alternative methods of resolving personal and group conflicts which are based on
negotiation and mediation instead of aggression and violence. In addition, teachers need
to be trained so that they are able to detect incidents and situations of gender-based
violence in the families of their students.
In technical institutes and universities, efforts should be made to incorporate the
issue of gender-based violence and human rights into academic programmes for the
professions whose future practitioners will probably come into contact with the victims of
abuse and violence. The training of specialized personnel is vital if the programmes that
are implemented are to be successful and if secondary institutional victimization is to be
Governments must provide support to academic institutions in the form of
scholarships and grants so that studies can be conducted on the incidence and prevalence
of gender-based violence and research can be done on the ideological and cultural aspects
which give rise to and perpetuate the phenomenon. In a similar vein, the execution and
the impact of programmes must be assessed in order to provide the necessary background
information for policy-making and planning. New methods for preventing gender-based
violence must be explored and teams of researchers must be organized who are equipped
to apply an integrated and multidisciplinary approach to the study of the different forms of
violence. Such research should be conducted from a theoretical perspective that interprets
the problem in the light of gender analysis and as a form of the violation of human rights.
National health, demographic, population and household surveys should include questions
that enable researchers to determine and quantify the prevalence of gender violence and


thus gain greater insight into the problem. In addition, Governments should incorporate
data that are disaggregated by sex and should include a differential gender analysis in all
reports they present on the human rights situation in their countries.
In view of the important role played by the media in the perpetuation of prevailing
standards and values and the contribution they could make to raising the public's
awareness and promoting changes in human relationships, the media should address the
phenomenon of gender-based violence with the aim of acting as mechanisms of
identification and education, by informing people about the magnitude of the problem, the
forms it can take and the rights protecting women. In order for the media to play a
positive role in preventing and eliminating gender-based violence, Governments must
promote communications policies which make it possible to denounce acts of
discrimination against the female population and to coordinate public awareness
campaigns that portray any act of aggression against women or violation of human rights
as unacceptable and as a crime.
With regard to laws and regulations, it is essential to eliminate all forms of
discrimination enshrined in different countries' civil, criminal and labour laws, as well as
those manifested in legal practices and procedures. Furthermore, the crimes associated
with gender-based violence must be defined as such in the laws of each country and
commensurate penalties established so as to put an end to the impunity enjoyed by
aggressors and guarantee the judicial protection of their victims. In order for the law to
play an effective role in defending the rights of women and curbing violence, it is
imperative that mechanisms be established to monitor the enforcement of the relevant
legislation and create awareness of gender issues in public institutions. To this end,
judges, lawyers, police officers and public-sector officials in general should, irrespective of
their sex, be trained to recognize sexism and discrimination as part of the performance of
their duties, to facilitate the reporting of crimes and to provide protection and assistance
to victims.
As a complement to the foregoing, women must be made aware of their rights and
must assert them; this requires the publication and dissemination of information
concerning the civil liberties and rights they enjoy under the terms of international
conventions and national laws. Governments should, either through their own
mechanisms or by supporting the efforts of non-governmental organizations, expand the
network of legal aid offices to which the female segment of the population can turn for
information and assistance. It is also necessary to support and promote educational
initiatives, both in the formal and informal spheres, which will strengthen women's selfesteem, leadership skills and economic independence.
The healthcare system offers particularly appropriate tools for determining the
extent and the prevalence of gender-based violence; consequently, in addition to training
health-sector workers to detect, handle and refer cases of violence properly, steps should
be taken to ensure that all women, whether living in urban or rural areas, have access to
suitable services and care. It is also recommended that self-help groups for battered
women be set up in health clinics and public hospitals. In the interests of attending to
victims promptly, links between the health sector and the institutions responsible for
forensic medicine need to be established since it is obvious that, for example, training and
sensitizing forensic specialists plays an important role in facilitating the reporting of violent
acts by female victims.
Government bodies responsible for improving the status of women must work
together and coordinate their activities with other institutions, including ministries, local
governments and non-governmental organizations; they should also contribute to the


creation of social support networks for the victims of gender-based violence, since the
whole of society is responsible for eliminating such violence, and community participation
is vital if the impunity of aggressors is to end. In addition, links need to be established to
promote coordination and cooperation between the organizations which monitor the
observance of human rights and the organizations which work for women's advancement;
this step will require greater openness in terms of theory, practice and policy stances on
the part of both sectors.
There is a strong connection between gender-based violence against women and a
lack of equity in the economic, socio-cultural and political spheres; as a consequence,
initiatives in this field must be of an integrated nature, should include complementary
income-generation, housing and vocational training programmes for women, and should
be accompanied by the adoption of policy measures concerning health, recreation and
social and political participation.
As is to be expected, the recommendations presented in this document are not
exhaustive. This is, above all, because achieving the goals of preventing the violation of
women's human rights and eliminating gender-based violence in the countries of the
region will require, at all levels and in all spheres where the problem is manifested, the
political will of Governments and a commitment on the part of the entire population; these
are essential if we are to create a more just and equitable society and achieve true
development within a framework of peace.


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Mujer y Desarrollo series



Rural women in Latin America and the Caribbean: results of projects and
programmes (LC/L.513), September 1989

Latin America: the challenge of socializing the home environment (LC/L.514),

October 1989

Women and politics in Latin America and the Caribbean (LC/L.515), September

Refugee and displaced women in Latin America and the Caribbean (LC/L.591),
December 1990

Women, Cultures and Development: views from Latin America (LC/L.596), May

Women and new technologies (LC/L.597), November 1990

New participatory methodologies for working with women (LC/L.592), October


The vulnerability of households headed by women: policy questions and options for
Latin America and the Caribbean (LC/L.611), April 1991

Integration of the feminine into Latin American culture: in search of a new social
paradigm (LC/L.674/Rev.1), June 1994


Domestic violence against women in Latin America and the Caribbean: proposals for
discussion (LC/L.690), June 1992


Feminization of the informal sector in Latin America and the Caribbean? (LC/L.731),
May 1993


Women in Latin America and the Caribbean: potential leadership in the area of
population (LC/L.738), May 1993


Development and gender equity: an uncompleted task (LC/L.767), June 1992


Changing power and autonomy of the Caribbean women (LC/L.881), October 1995


Female human resources development: growth and equity as priorities (LC/L.947),

May 1997


Gender-based violence: a human rights problem (LC/L.957), June 1997

Readers interested in back numbers in this series should request them in writing
from the Women and Development Unit, ECLAC, Casilla 179-D, Santiago, Chile.